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Lagomarsino Canyon: Art in a hard (and beautiful) place

Outside of Reno, one of the world’s richest petroglyph sites attracts the adventurous —and inspires the artistic

“I love it here,” Colby Stephens says as we drive a dusty 4 x 4 trail roughly 20 miles east of Reno. “The sky is huge.”

In the back seat of his old Chevy Blazer, I push back the thin tinted window to reveal a cyan sky with wisps of white clouds. As a Las Vegas native, I’ve spent most of my time within bustling city limits. I gained an appreciation for neon and antiquated building implosions at an early age, and a landscape sans palm trees seems foreign. But for Reno-based conceptual artist Colby and his wife, artist Clairissa “Claire” Stephens, the natural landscape begs to be explored and appreciated.

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With their deep respect for earth’s treasures and their desire to inspire people to think more deeply about their relationship with the land, we’re on our way to the natural subject of Colby’s latest work: Lagomarsino Canyon Petroglyph Site, the largest known collection of prehistoric rock art in Nevada. Far from Reno’s smoke-ridden casinos, Tahoe’s snow-laden ski lodges or even Virginia City’s historic haunts, this site has art that no museum or gallery exhibit can contain.

In the Northwestern Nevada desert, we travel a path few venture onto due to the difficult trail, need for a high-clearance vehicle and demand for a guide — that is, someone who knows the trail’s turns, its natural landmarks and its design so as to avoid trespassing on private lands along the journey. Amid the expansive vistas, our truck rolls along the dirt path. We pass a thin horse with splotched ruddy hair and a dull black mane, nosing the dry desert earth. Pushing aside tumbleweeds, the horse searches the land we’ve come to survey for something more substantial.

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Colby guides the truck near the remains of a roofless, one-story building constructed of hand-stacked bricks. He thinks this may be an old municipal building, perhaps from Nevada’s early statehood days. Toppled red and gray bricks litter the area, no doubt once part of the crumbling walls. Beyond the stone threshold, a makeshift fire pit of stacked rocks and burnt charcoal doubles as a collection bin for broken beer bottles.

Back on the barren path, we see a band of healthy wild horses amble past dried shrubs, stones and juniper trees, making their pilgrimage across the road, up the mountainside. Soon, the sure-footed creatures mount the ridge.

Claire motions toward a hand-built brick chimney. Unlike the decrepit municipal building, this tiered tower rises untouched amid roadside sagebrush and brambles. It is a monument to the Nevada homestead, an obelisk of gray stone with a repeated pattern of orange bricks.

Claire tucks her hands into her pockets and says this is her favorite building we’ll pass.

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“That attention to detail,” she says of the brick design, “gives the ruins a narrative that comes alive in my mind of who might have lived there and called that ‘home.’”

As we inch along hilltops, I hold my breath, hoping we have clearance to crawl atop boulders and navigate narrow paths along cliff edges. But the Chevy Blazer isn’t doing a bad job of it.

Colby cracks a smile. He likes the technical challenge of 4 x 4 trails. “But,” he says with a glance at his rearview mirror, “I probably wouldn’t bother doing them if they didn’t happen to be in a beautiful location.”

I grip the open window’s edge as the truck splashes across a stream beside the sunken shell of a rusted pink car. Beyond a grove of skeletal trees, a metal gate stops our progress in the vehicle. We abandon it to hike a footpath designated by a printed sign.

Just ahead, we perceive a change in the hillside parallel to the trail. Pecked markings — circles, lines, swirls and animal shapes — speckle the basalt rocks’ surfaces. Against a saturated sky, thousands of these rocks form an expansive cliff face and an adjacent slope. Colby scans horizon lines and grips his sketchbook.

I walk along the extensive rock art wall, which stretches into the desert beyond my line of vision. Near the cliff’s ridge, wide grooves form grandiose designs, spotted with green spores and rust-colored lichen. Then at its sloped base, jagged-edged rocks reveal small, deeply pecked symbols, visibly pale against the dark patina — the desert varnish — of the rocks’ surfaces.

Claire and I team up to find our favorite symbols and guess what these might have meant to ancient inhabitants. This could be a handprint. That might be a bighorn sheep. Perhaps these pitted lines denote a game. “We try to see recognizable shapes in the abstract,” Claire says, “because we want to ascribe meaning to it.”

Prehistoric petroglyphs

Researchers don’t know why prehistoric peoples created these symbols, likely carved by varied small groups over a time period predominantly dating from 4,000 to 10,000 years ago. Modern archeologists agree, including Dr. Angus R. Quinlan, Executive Director at The Nevada Rock Art Foundation. But while no knowledge is certain without direct access to the original artists, field professionals have made educated guesses over the past century.

Early anthropologists, including ethnographer Julian Steward in 1929, speculated Lagomarsino Canyon served as a site for hunting-magic rituals, where carved symbols strategically placed guaranteed success in the hunt and in finding water and food. Then in 1958, researchers Robert Heizer, Martin Baumhoff and Albert Elsasser published theories of Lagomarsino’s origins as a place where tribal shamans gathered power due to the area’s proximity to perennial springs. In 1962, Baumhoff and Heizer also espoused hunting-magic theories and proposed hunters herded prey over the cliff into an ambush to ensure a continued food source.

But that fruitful speculation stalled. In 1981, The Bureau of Land Management Nevada reported a significant “void in the prehistoric record” due to a lack of contemporary research. Decades later, Washoe Tribe elders examined the designs and drew allusions to patterns found in Washoe lifestyle pieces, like hunting nets and woven baskets. Then from 2003 to 2008, The Nevada Rock Art Foundation performed thorough fieldwork, led by Dr. Alanah Woody, and established a complete archeological record, forever preserving the area’s 4,600 rock art motifs. What researchers once believed to be a place of preparation for the hunt — think a locker room where the team gets pumped up — is now revealed by modern archeologists to be something more like a motel room where the big players stayed as they pass through town on their way to the big games.

Today, Lagomarsino Canyon Petroglyph Site, although recognized within the National Register of Historic Places, remains largely untouched by visitors and researchers alike. The location’s ambiguity sustains its lifespan, allowing the original petroglyphs to avoid defacement and the landscape to project a hushed sense of awe to occasional visitors.

“It’s one of the finest rock art sites in all of the western U.S.,” says Quinlan as we discuss Lagomarsino two weeks later in his humble Reno office at a wooden desk piled with field notes. “The rock art, the landscape, the tranquility of being in a place like that — you could be out there, and you wouldn’t even realize that Reno is 20 to 30 miles away.”

The power of place

In such places, “everything else fades away except the land,” Claire says. “My senses are heightened, and everything feels a little more raw.”

Colby has this awareness too. Lagomarsino represents to him a place of significance, prompting him to photograph the location’s horizon line for an ambitious art project in which he’ll transform horizon lines of personal meaning to him into a musical staff — ultimately turning landscape into sound.

“It’s open to be incorporated into different cultures and traditions in novel ways,” Quinlan says of the site. “The most important thing about it is: It is one of those strange features in the landscape which prompts a response. It does keep provoking cultural responses over long periods. Maybe that’s the true meaning of it, rather than one specific story.”

As a place of cultural significance for Nevadan populations, Lagomarsino Canyon Petroglyph Site lends itself to continued interpretation. But as its meaning changes with each person who explores its pecked crevices, this rock art remains a visible reminder of an enduring past.

“The past endures,” Quinlan says, “and past actions endure into the present. That’s something people can actively see and actually draw upon when they’re at these places. That’s what makes them significant.”

These etchings are our history, set within the natural environment rather than a museum room, like abstract art embedded upon a natural medium. Now we, even millennia later, are the audience. “History itself survives as marks in the land,” Quinlan says. “Land — it provides us evidence of our ancestors, your actual cultural history. … That is the power of place.”

Getting there

Lagomarsino Canyon Petroglyph Site is 20 miles east of Reno via I-80. For similar sites in Southern Nevada, consider Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area, Grapevine Canyon Petroglyph Site, Valley of Fire State Park and Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.